Read the world: Rome: The City and Its People

William Klein’s Rome takes us to the streets of the Italian capital in the late 1950s, when the photographer was killing time working as an assistant director for Federico Fellini

The first image in William Klein’s Rome shows a stout middle-aged man having a cigarette break next to a plaster model of the famous Roman statue of two young wrestlers. According to Klein’s caption, the man pictured is a watchman of a warehouse belonging to Cinecittà, one of Italy’s most iconic film studios. This stark and everyday juxtaposition is one of Klein’s most consistent preoccupations throughout this collection of photographs. He quotes a characterisation of Rome by the Italian poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, “Roma: Papa, preti, principi, puttane, pulci e poveri” [Rome: Pope, priests, princes, prostitutes, fleas and paupers]. Klein photographs them all.

Rome, we learn from Klein’s foreword, emerges from a period when the photographer was working as an assistant for Federico Fellini on the film Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria). Up until two weeks before the film was supposed to begin shooting, Klein had been nothing but an admirer of the Italian director, but having met in Paris, Fellini told Klein that he had a copy of Klein’s New York beside his bed, before offering Klein the job of assistant director on his upcoming film. Shooting was delayed following the film’s star Giulietta Masina breaking her leg and the death of Fellini’s father, leaving Klein with time to kill.

Klein’s street photography is presented across two books, the first containing Klein’s photography, the second the captions to accompany each image. These captions, however, are rarely straightforwardly explanatory. Instead, the book is comprised of quotations from various thinkers, each offering a different perspective on Italy’s capital, often only obliquely related to the specific photograph they are attached to. Among the (overwhelmingly male) voices that populate Klein’s captions are Montaigne, Dickens, Pasolini and “An Anonymous New Yorker”.

Roughly midway through comes a particularly memorable set of six consecutive photographs of families, couples or grandparents each crowded on a single Vespa. Klein photographs each group similarly, from the same distance and facing the same direction, so as to give the effect that they are each in a single moment speeding down the same road. Klein discusses these images: ‘The Vespa has broken not only the Italian eardrum but also several links in Catholicism’s chains. In Rome, where it is illegal for a hotel to accept an unmarried couple, love must seek the wide open spaces. The Vespa has… hastened the development of a new morality, and contributed to the march of romance.’ The charm of Rome for Klein is in this abandonment and impiety, particularly evident in the city of the late 1950s.

It is surprising, then, to find in among Klein’s pacy and spontaneous photography, a far more contrived set of fashion photographs Klein shot for American Vogue. In the second book, Klein explains that he regarded these images as merely ‘financing my personal work’. As such, he ‘found them hard to take seriously, and the photos were mostly private jokes’. Klein’s captions do little to hide a distaste for this work. The photographs, however, are far from uninspired: an image of a model striding with Romanesque arches in the background giving her an angelic silhouette, all amid a foreground of the tangled statuesque limbs of the Italian wrestling team is another strikingly referential and confident image.

Famous landmarks often only appear in the background, their presence seeming almost accidental. Klein is interested in the Roman citizens, what they might have inherited from the city’s past and what they might have abandoned. Klein’s street photography offers an alternative and captivating perspective on one of the most visited cities in the world.

Klein is most famous for his street photography of New York. Both cities, for Klein, are not reducible to any single set of ideas about culture, history or character. Instead of trying to capture an entire city, Klein settles for the incidental pleasure of street photography.

By Joseph Helm. Joseph specialises in writing about art and literature. 

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